Senate passes bill creating 'Sunset committee'

ATLANTA -- State agencies would have to justify their need to exist in front of a committee tasked with deciding whether or not they should survive under a proposed law approved by state senators on Monday.

Senate Bill 233 was approved 37 to 12, with the vote was split largely along party lines, though it did pass with some bipartisan support. Supporters argued it is necessary to further streamline state government.

"Georgians deserve the right to regularly examine the purposes, effectiveness and efficiency of state government," said Sen. Judson Hill, a sponsor of the legislation. "Who best to do that rather than the elected officials of this state? It's time now to reduce the size of government to fit our revenues, not to increase our revenues to meet the size of government."

Critics warned that such a committee would wield extraordinary power over state departments.

"Department heads will no doubt be at the beck and call of these 14 members," said Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Marietta.

Gov. Nathan Deal's office declined to say whether he supports the legislation, but the two Senate Republicans who voted no on Monday both serve as the governor's floor leaders.

The proposed law would create a 14-member committee that would serve two-year terms. The committee would not unilaterally decide whether to eliminate programs, but would instead make a recommendation to the state Legislature on whether to cut, consolidate, privatize or otherwise change state programs.

The committee would determine how often to meet and would review state agencies according to an 18-point list of criteria. Departments not funded by the state would not be subject to the committee, nor would constitutionally created agencies.

The House and Senate would appoint seven members each to the committee, including one of the governor's floor leaders from each chamber to be chosen by the House speaker and the lieutenant governor.

Some Democrats used the debate on the sunset bill to ask for similar support for proposed legislation by the minority party that would establish a panel to review existing tax exemptions. Others asked if this legislation was necessary, given that state agencies receive scrutiny during the legislative budget approval process.

Hill countered that the legislative session does not allow for a hard look at the core functions of state government.

"We need, frankly, 12 months ... It may be a couple of years, to review state agencies," Hill said.

Sen. William Ligon, the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said the committee creates a more deliberative process that also allows more time for public input.

The legislation now heads to the House.